Bickley: Cardinals' Deone Bucannon NFL trendsetter
Football is Deone Bucannon’s endless vacation. He needs nothing else to be happy.
He spent his offseason gaining 10 pounds of muscle. He looks like a young Adrian Wilson, chiseled and eager to hit anything that moves. He struggles to describe a single leisurely pursuit over the past four months, a time when Larry Fitzgerald probably filled up another passport.
“Shoot,” he said, searching. “What did I do? That’s a good question.”
Answer: He became a trendsetter.
Entering the 2016 season, Bucannon now represents a new type of safety-linebacker hybrid, a position that seems to be the NFL’s latest rage, the latest tactical adjustment in a never-ending game of chess.
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Offenses are more prolific than ever. The game is about spreading the field, finding the mismatch and passing the football. The fullback is practically extinct, and next on the endangered list is the robust, run-stuffing linebacker, dinosaurs that are now getting exposed in pass coverage.
“In this league, people are always thinking up ways of creating a mismatch,” Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. “That’s what the NFL is all about. It’s very critical now to have linebackers that can cover and play in space.”
Bucannon is considered the prototype, a versatile player that can hit and run. He played a big man’s position for most of the past season, leading the team in tackles (129) after his switch to linebacker. Yet he weighed only 207 pounds by the end of that playoff loss in North Carolina.
The days of the 255-pound linebacker are coming to an end, and Bucannon represents the kind of wish-list player in hot demand. Keim points to two recent draft picks in particular: Florida’s Keanu Neal, who was drafted by the Falcons with the 17th pick; and USC’s Su’a Cravens, selected 53rd overall by the Redskins.
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“I was blessed by God to have this specific skill-set,” Bucannon said. “I like contact. I like being around the ball. I wouldn’t say I invented the position. A lot of safeties have done this before me. (Seattle’s) Kam Chancellor plays in the box a lot. Adrian Wilson was a legend among Cardinals, and he did that a lot, as well.
“I came to Arizona wanting to be just like A-dub. He could go out and cover. But at the same time, he could go in the box and bang with the big boys. Those guys really paved the way for me to be able to have this position.”
The difficulty for other NFL teams is not finding the right physical specimens to play a hybrid position as well as Bucannon. It’s finding people with the same kind of commitment, passion and appetite for football.
Keim tells a great story about their pre-draft visit at a local steakhouse. The Cardinals executive told Bucannon that regardless of hype or where he ends up playing, the Washington State standout had an opportunity to join a very special fraternity, a chance to play professional football for a living.
“Do you understand? Do know what that means?” Keim asked.
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During his soliloquy, he noticed Bucannon had lowered his head. When Keim finished, Bucannon looked up and across the table. Tears were streaming down his face.
“I get chills now just thinking about it,” Keim said.
You rarely go wrong employing passionate football players, and Bucannon effectively became a member of the Cardinals that night, when his tears fell on their pricey dinner. Two years later, he is just as hungry, and just as humble.
“My goal is to win the Super Bowl, and I just want to play my part,” Bucannon said. “I feel like we have a lot of leaders on this team. We have Calais (Campbell), Patrick Peterson, a lot of guys that already have that ‘C’ on their chest. We don’t need an overflow of people vocalizing.
“I’m still going to make plays. But I’m going to be the guy to do whatever they need. I’m going to be a person who respects their judgment.”
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In this case, that means being something of a trendsetter, even if Bucannon has a hard time accepting that compliment or viewing himself with such importance.
“That’s funny,” he said.
Funny? Not if you’re a running back that catches a pass out the backfield and gets leveled by the newly improved Bucannon, a guy who now bench presses 400 pounds, or roughly the weight of an adult male lion.
Have fun with that, NFC West.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8253. Follow him at twitter.com/danbickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta,” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.